Wednesday, October 23, 2019

From Guadalcanal to China – Warren Umshler, USMC

by Larry Miller

We’re approaching 75 years since the end of­­­ the Second World War, the six-year war that – in terms of lives lost and destruction of land a property – was the worst in history.  Most of those who fought in that war, or even remember it, are gone.  Their stories are not.

Nazi Germany surrendered unconditionally on May 8, 1945, which is recognized throughout much of the world as Victory in Europe Day (V-E Day).   Three months later, the war in the Pacific came to an end, and Victory over Japan Day (V-J Day) was proclaimed on August 15.

Private First Class Warren Umshler, USMC
First word of “V-J Day” reached the United States on August 14, 1945, although in the Solomon Islands of the South Pacific, it was already August 15, and Marine Technical Sergeant Warren Umshler of Osceola, Nebraska was surely among those celebrating the moment!  He had been in the Marine Corps more than three years, and those years had marked some of the most significant – and horrific – moments of his young life.   Little could he have known that life would beset him with even more challenges in the months to come, despite the formal surrender of Japan on September 2, 1945, which later would become the official “V-J Day” and marked the end of World War 2.

But to understand and appreciate Umshler’s story, it’s necessary to start at the beginning, in the small east Nebraska town of Shelby, about a one-hour drive west of Omaha.  That’s where Warren Hardy Umshler was born on January 3, 1923, the first of seven children born to Walter and Vera Hardy Umshler.  Warren’s father worked as a railroad depot agent, and his mother was a talented musician.

Umshler, a Junior in 1940, played for the Osceola "Bulldogs" (#4 front row at left)

They moved to Columbus, Nebraska for a couple of years before settling in the Polk County community of Osceola, where Warren attended high school and played basketball.  He was also a swimmer – but perhaps his most memorable experience was meeting and dating Genevieve “Jen” Hartson.  They soon became high school sweethearts.

Genevieve "Jen" Hartson
Warren was among the 33 graduates of Osceola High School in 1941.   As Nebraska Supreme Court Associate Justice Fred Messmore delivered their commencement address, it’s likely the new graduates were oblivious to just how much their lives would be altered in coming months. 

Umshler went to work as a stock clerk for Montgomery Ward before trying his hand as a “soda jerk” at the Osceola Drug Store.  But then everything changed.   On December 7, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.  The United States declared war against Japan the next day, leading Warren Umshler – and all Americans – down very different roads.

The 18-year-old Umshler was sworn in to the U.S. Marine Corps on March 24, 1942 and was soon on his way to the Marine Recruit Depot at San Diego for boot camp.   By May, Private Umshler had completed basic training, qualifying as a Rifle Marksman and a Pistol Sharpshooter.  He was assigned to Headquarters, Squadron 23, with the 2nd Marine Air Wing, Oahu, Hawaii.  His unit was soon dispatched to numerous locations across the Pacific Theater.

Umshler served as an administrative/technical clerk.  Of course, in the Corps, all Marines learn combat skills.   Their mantra “Every Marine a Rifleman” was surely not lost on Umshler, who would soon become intimately aware of its importance.

By July 1942, Private Umshler was transferred to Marine Fighting Squadron 224, Aircraft Group 23, part of the First Marine Division’s Air Wing.  That same month, U.S. air reconnaissance of the Solomon Islands in the far western Pacific detected that Japanese forces had landed on the strategic island of Guadalcanal and were in the process of building an airfield.  Such a facility posed a huge threat to Allied supply routes to Australia.

Marines going ashore at Guadalcanal
From August 7 to August 9, Umshler’s division initiated landing assaults against several strongly-defended Japanese positions on the islands of Tulagi, Gavutu, Tnambogo, Florida, and Guadalcanal – largest of the Solomons.  The Japanese were routed, and the Marines seized perhaps the most valuable base and airfield within the enemy zone of operations in the South Pacific.

Remarkably, the First Division not only held their strategic positions despite “determined and repeated Japanese naval, air and land attacks,” they also drove enemy forces from the proximity of the airfield at Guadalcanal, inflicting significant losses on the Japanese.

The landing strip itself – not yet completed – was taken with relative ease; it was renamed Henderson Field in honor of a Marine flier who’d been killed two months earlier at the Battle of Midway.

Although the Japanese had been forced from the Henderson Field area, the fighting was far from over.  Air, naval, and ground assaults increased as enemy forces struggled to regain the island.  Fighting continued through September and intensified in October as the Japanese tried to destroy the airfield, which was playing a key role in rebuffing the many enemy assaults on Guadalcanal and surrounding islands. 

On the night of October 11, American bombers from Henderson sank two Japanese destroyers – but still more enemy craft were entering the fray.  Naval and air battles intensified, and on October 13, around 9:30 in the evening, enemy bombers caught Allied planes on the ground, damaging the runway extensively and blowing up one of the few remaining fuel dumps at the field.

Enemy shells also found other targets.

Private First Class Umshler and members of the 224th had been asleep in their tent.  He remembered the events vividly:

We were awakened by shrapnel ripping through the tent.  We jumped up and found we were being shelled by a Jap task force off shore and being bombed, at intervals, by planes.

We made a mad dash for our bomb shelter, which was really nothing but an oversized foxhole, and hugged the earth.  The shelling was concentrated on Henderson Field, putting us directly in the line of fire.

“It was about 2 o’clock in the morning, with the attack in heated progress, when we heard the first cries for help.  They came from about 25 yards away.   When I got there, I found one man buried to his waist and another up to his neck.  They said three others nearby were buried completely.  There were two fellows already working when I arrived.  We had nothing but our hands and a small entrenching shovel to dig with.  While we worked, bombs and 16-inch shells shook the earth all about us.

“It was slow going, but we finally got some help and in three or four hours had all the victims out.  Only the two who had been partially buried lived.  The other three died.

For his actions, Private First Class Warren Umshler was recommended to receive the Silver Star Medal, third highest Marine Corps medal after the Medal of Honor and the Distinguished Service Cross.  He was presented the Silver Star on June 19, 1943, after returning to the states.

Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox ­– on behalf of President Franklin D. Roosevelt – cited PFC Umshler “for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action with Marine Fighting Squadron 224 during bombardment of Henderson Field, Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands, by enemy Japanese surface and air forces on the night of October 13-14, 1942.

When a heavy enemy shell struck dangerously close to a bomb shelter, burying five marines under a mass of earth and debris, Private First Class Umshler, hearing cries for help, voluntarily exposed himself to the intense fire of hostile shells and bombs and, with several other men, set to work rescuing their imprisoned comrades.  Due to the quick thinking and heroic efforts of Private First Class Umshler and his companions, two of the buried men were saved…his unswerving devotion to duty was in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.”

The Guadalcanal campaign lasted six months and was the longest of the entire Pacific war.    American dead numbered about 1,600, and another 4,200 were wounded.  If those who died from malaria and other tropical diseases had been included, it’s likely American casualties could easily have doubled.  The Japanese lost some 24,000 men in the fighting.

Wedding bells for Jen and Warren Umshler - 1943
In the wake of Guadalcanal, Umshler was promoted to Corporal, and the squadron was off to Noumea, New Caledonia, and Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides before returning to the states in early 1943.  He was assigned to the Personnel Group at the Miramar Marine Corps Air Depot near San Diego.

That’s when he borrowed a dime from a buddy to make a call to his Nebraska girlfriend, Jen Hartson, who by that time had taken a job in Olympia, Washington, working for the State Patrol.  He proposed to her over the phone, and they were married on Christmas Eve of 1943 in Santa Ana, California. 

“Hardy” Umshler – as Jen liked to call her husband – was again promoted, this time to Staff Sergeant, and was assigned to Headquarters Squadron 41 at the Marine Corps Air Station located near Santa Ana, where they made their home during 1944.  Jen even took a job with the First National Bank in nearby Fullerton, California.

But in early 1945, after yet another promotion – this time to Technical Sergeant – “Hardy” received new orders to Air Squadron One of the First Marine Aircraft Wing and would be deployed again to the western Pacific.

Years later, Jen remembered that the same day Warren received those new orders, she learned she was pregnant.  Soon after Warren’s departure, Jen returned to Nebraska to live with her parents in Osceola until Warren’s return.

The war in Europe was nearing its end.  Hitler had committed suicide on April 30, and the United States and its Allies celebrated Victory in Europe (V-E) Day May 8.    

Technical Sergeant Warren Umshler - ca 1946
Tech Sergeant Umshler’s unit was dispatched to Los Negros in the Admiralty Islands of the South Pacific.  The war with Japan raged on.  Then, the Allies began massive bombing raids on Japan throughout July and early August 1945.  On August 6th the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.  Eight days later, Japan surrendered unconditionally.

With the formal surrender of Japan aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay on September 2, 1945, the war was over.

But not for Warren Umshler.

While much of the world was celebrating the end of the war, open conflict continued to wreak havoc in China.   Technical Sergeant Umshler and members of the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing learned that they weren’t going home.   They were to become a part of Operation Beleaguer – some 50,000 Marines, led by the Third Marine Amphibious Corps – charged with “disarming, subsisting, an repatriating” more than 600,000 Japanese and Koreans who were still in northern China at the end of the war. 

Most remaining Japanese troops were in the region of the Shantung Peninsula along the Yellow Sea across from Korea.  While tentative orders were issued by Admiral Nimitz on August 19, it was September 15 before Marines actually began deployment to the northern Chinese provinces of Shantung and Hopeh.

The task for the Marines was a complicated one.  China was in the middle of its own civil war, pitting the Nationalist Chinese forces under Chiang Kai-shek, a U.S. ally, against Chinese Communist forces led by Mao Zedong.  President Harry Truman ordered U.S. forces, mostly Marines and Navy personnel, to northern China to accept the surrendering Japanese and Koreans.  They would also assist the Nationalists in reasserting control over land that had been held by the Japanese, but much of it was then held by the Communist Chinese.   All the while, the Marines were to remain neutral and stay out of the fighting between the competing Chinese forces.  They were allowed to engage in combat only if fired upon first.

A further difficulty for remaining U.S. troops was their diminishing numbers.  Thousands of Marines in the Third Marine Amphibious Corps, of which Umshler’s 1st Marine Aircraft Wing was a component, had earned enough “points” to return home, and more would become eligible and depart with each passing month.  While some replacement troops were arriving, it was not enough to meet the requirements of Operation Beleaguer.

Led by Major General Claude Larkin, the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing established its headquarters near the airfield at Tientsin. It was Larkin’s command that was largely tasked with repatriating the Japanese left in northern China.

The Shantung Peninsula region of northeast China.  Korea is across the Yellow Sea to the east.
Tsingtao is near the center of this map, while Tientsin and Peiping are near the top left.

Air groups and service squadrons were assigned to airfields at Peiping, Tientsin, and Tsingtao. Marine aircraft arrived at Tsangkou airfield near Tsingtao on October 12, and a Division command post was opened the next day.  About two weeks later, on October 25 the Japanese – estimated at some 10,000 troops – formally surrendered the Tsingtao garrison.

Historian Henry I. Shaw authored a pamphlet for U.S. Marine Headquarters entitled The United States Marines in North China 1945-1949.  Shaw wrote that Tsingtao and the coastal areas controlled by the Nationalist Chinese was a “Nationalist island in a Communist sea.”

The interior region surrounding Tientsin, Peiping, and Kuyeh was also dominated by the Communists, and there was regular sabotaging of the rail lines hauling coal and supplies.  Coal was particularly critical for the port city of Shanghai to survive.

They soon were plagued by incidents involving blown tracks, train derailments, and ambushes, which were to be the lot of Marines on duty in the midst of the Chinese civil war.  While American casualties amounted to only a handful compared to the toll from an island assault, these China dangers were particularly distasteful because the war was supposed to be over, and the slowly rising casualty list loomed large in the eyes of the men who manned the isolated guard posts and rode the dusty coal trains.”

Amazingly, repatriation efforts went smoothly despite the hostilities that surfaced repeatedly between the Chinese Communists and the Nationalist Chinese.  During the nearly four years of Allied occupation of northern China after World War 2, U.S. forces managed to avoid any major battles.  Alas, there were casualties.

On November 8, 1945, Umshler was shot in the left hip and lower abdomen.  The circumstances and precise location of the incident are not known.

Umshler was flown south to a U.S. Hospital Ship anchored in Shanghai Harbor, where he remained about one week before being evacuated by air with other wounded to the Naval Hospital on Guam.   He sent a letter to Jen, dictated to a friend who actually wrote the letter, saying he had “hurt his hand.”

Jen recalled some years later that “He didn’t want to tell me what had happened to him, because he didn’t want to worry me when I was expecting a baby…he made some excuse about hurting his hand and all the time he was having surgery and going through all that.”

Most sources indicate that during Operation Beleaguer, 13 U.S. Marine were killed and another 43 were wounded.

While Umshler was convalescing on Guam, Jen was in Stromsburg, Nebraska, giving birth to their son, Warren (Skip) Umshler, Jr., who came along on November 23, 1945.

By January 1946, Marine Technical Sergeant Warren was transferred to to Oak Knoll Naval Hospital in California.  Old Navy Muster Rolls say he was with “Casual Company Number Two, U.S. Naval Hospital, Oakland, California.”  It was a massive complex, built in 1942 to accommodate casualties from across the Pacific Theater.  At its peak, it had a staff of 3,000 personnel and more than 6,000 patients. 

“Casual Company” was a commonly-used term referring to a holding unit for personnel to heal while awaiting transfer or discharge from active duty.  While we don’t know the specific day, Tech Sergeant Umshler’s condition improved to the point that in early 1946 he was transferred to Marine Air Control Squadron 2 at the Marine Corps Air Depot at Miramar.  Consistent with his specialty and earlier jobs, Umshler was assigned to the “Personnel Group” in the squadron. 

By May 1946, baby “Skip” and mother Jen were on their way to California to join Warren.

My parents got Skip and I on a plane,” Jen recalled.  “He was about six months old.  The first person I saw when I got off the plane at San Francisco was Warren.  He could hardly wait to see Skip.”  It was the first time Warren saw his son.

The family was united – sort of – for the first time.  They found a place to live in Fullerton, a growing community on the south side of Los Angeles.  In an interview some years later with the Chadron (Nebr) Record, Jen remembered that while Warren was still stationed in the San Diego area, he would often hitchhike back and forth to Fullerton.

Finally, his release from active duty came on July 1, 1946, bringing an end to the hitchhiking – and four years that would, as the war did for so many veterans, have a profound influence on the rest of his life.

Civilian Warren Umshler enrolled at the California College of Mortuary Science in Los Angeles, finishing in December 1946. His next career step was at California State at Fullerton.   By March of 1948, he had passed the State Board exam given by the California Board of Funeral Directors – finishing in the upper 10 percent of his class while qualifying for California State Board Certification.

Warren Umshler in 1949 as a freshman
at Hastings College in Nebraska
After nearly two years of living in California, the Umshlers decided to return to Nebraska, where Warren enrolled at Hastings College, taking pre-mortuary science.  Having by then gained certification as a licensed embalmer in both Nebraska and California, Warren moved his family to the northeast Nebraska community of Walthill, where he landed a job with a funeral home.  It was in Walthill that their first daughter, Sherry, was born in January 1951.

A few weeks later, the Umshlers moved to Chadron, where Warren went to work for Dwight Reed at Reed Hardware and Undertaking.  The family settled in to a home at 238 Shelton Street, and their younger daughter, Cam, was born in August 1954.

It was in Chadron that Warren and Jen Umshler would raise their family and find their way into the fabric of Dawes County history.

While working at the mortuary was the work for which he’d successfully trained, Warren wasn’t making much money, so he took a job as Parts Manager at Chicoine Motors for two years.  His next position, however, was the one for which most folks will remember him.

Warren went to work for the Nebraska Department of Roads and Irrigation, which had a division office and shop in Chadron.  His job as a highway engineer turned out to be the right move.  He remained with the department more than 30 years. 

But Warren wasn’t the only breadwinner for the Umshler family.  Jen had worked at several jobs across the country during and after the war – from various offices in the Polk County Court House in Nebraska to her job with the State Patrol in Washington.  In California, after she and Warren were married, she had worked at the bank in Fullerton.  She had a wealth of work experience.

Jen and "Hardy" Umshler - 50th Anniversary
Jen went to work for the U.S. Forest Service and later accepted a job as Deputy Clerk of the District Court in Chadron.  Three years later she was elected District Court Clerk and remained in that position for some 22 years, getting re-elected five times!

Perhaps remembering his own involvement in athletics as a youngster, and observing his son’s interest and talent in several sports, Warren became very active in working with Chadron’s Bantam and Pony League baseball program for several years. 
He also became certified as a basketball referee, once officiating an exhibition game between the Harlem Globetrotters and a group of talented local players. 

Skip, Sherry and Cam Umshler all attended Chadron High School.  Skip graduated in 1964, Sherry in 1969, and Cam in 1972.

By the late 1980’s, both Warren and Jen retired.  Their children had moved out of the area, but the Umshlers weren’t ones to stay home in rocking chairs.  They wanted to continue to be active in the community.

They became involved with the “Meals on Wheels” program and also started making weekly trips to the Veteran’s Hospital in Hot Springs, where they volunteered for years.  It wasn’t just Warren’s experiences in the war that motivated them.   Two of Warren’s younger brothers, Bill and Walter, also had served in the Marine Corps, and another brother, Arthur, was wounded in World War 2 while serving with the 34th Division of the Fifth Army in Italy.

Jen’s father, Floyd Hartson, was a veteran, too, having served in World War One.

Warren was a long-time member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans, and the American Legion.   Jen was a faithful member of the American Legion Auxiliary for more than 50 years.  Jen was a faithful member of the American Legion Auxiliary for more than 50 years.

Warren and Genevieve "Jen" Umshler are both
buried at the Fort McPherson National Cemetery

located about 10 miles southeast of North Platte.

(Photo by Sherry Umshler Cacy)
Warren Umshler died July 21, 2008 in Chadron.  He was 85 years old.   Graveside services were conducted at Fort McPherson National Cemetery in Maxwell, Nebraska, with full military honors provided by the United States Marine Corps.  Jen Umshler lived another five years, passing away in Arapahoe, Nebraska, on September 16, 2013, at the age of 91.  She is interred near Warren at Fort McPherson National Cemetery.

Many folks in the Dawes County area still remember Warren Umshler as an indefatigable member of the Veteran’s Honor Guard.  He routinely participated in funerals, parades, and countless other events paying homage to veterans – and to America – but few people ever knew his own remarkable story.

NOTE I've known for many years that Warren Umshler served in World War II as a Marine; however, it was only in recent years that I learned he had received a Silver Star following the battle at Guadalcanal.  I'd like to thank Umshler family members for sharing family photos and other information for this story.
 -- Larry Miller, October 2019

(For more images, visit our Guadalcanal to China Gallery)